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Were there nuclear missiles stored in Northern Ireland?

That was a big question back in the early 1980s.

The US Navy's first guided Tomahawk Cruise Missile.
The US Navy's first guided Tomahawk Cruise Missile.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

WERE THERE NUCLEAR weapons stored in Northern Ireland?

Documents from the National Archives, released under the 30-year rule, show that this was a concern back in 1980 and 1983, following comments by Nobel Peace Prize winner Seán MacBride.

Press reports from the time show that it was brought up by Government figures on numerous occasions.

What did Sean MacBride say?

Sean MacBride, a former United Nations diplomat in the US hostages crisis, told the East Antrim Times in an interview “that the towns of Larne and Carrickfergus could be among the sites chosen by the Westminster Government for nuclear missiles”, the paper reported on 26 December 1982.

MacBride said that the British Government had agreed with NATO that up to 160 cruise missiles would be stored in the British Midlands at Berkshire and Cambridgeshire.

“At times of high international crisis, these would have to be sent immediately to various points in Britain and Northern Ireland. Small towns such as Carrickfergus and Larne would be more suitable than either the cities of Belfast or Derry which would make easy targets for invading missiles,” he told a reporter.

His comments followed a challenge by him at a conference by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin three years earlier to the Ministry of Defence to deny that the bases were being set up in the country.

In his speech, he said that he thought it “more than probably that a number of the secret location sites selected are in Northern Ireland”.

“It is obvious that had we been a member of the North Atlantic Military Alliance we too would have been faced with a request this year to provide some 20 to 30 sites on the Western Coast of Ireland for nuclear missiles”, suggested MacBride in his speech.

There was disquiet in Carrickfergus over this possibility, the newspaper reports, with concern expressed by a local councillor Sean Neeson about the arms race.

“If missiles are based in Northern Ireland, the country would be the target for a retaliatory strike,” said MacBride.

NATO

According to a government briefing document, MacBride’s statement arose from the decision made on 12 December 1979 by the member states of NATO about the modernisation of their theatre/tactical nuclear forces in Europe.

This was in response to the Soviet Union deploying its new long range nuclear missile.

The UK Government announced that as part of this they would accept 160 cruise missiles for location in the UK.

On 17 June 1980, the British Secretary of State for Defence, Frances Pym, announced that the missiles will be stationed at two existing US military establishments.

They were designed so that in a time of crisis they can be easily transferred to other secret locations within a radius of 50 – 100 miles.

On 26 November 1982, Pym said that it was planned that the first of the missiles would be deployed to Greenham Common in late 1983.

Dáil debates

A Dáil debate from 10 December 1980 showed Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Lenihan, being asked by Dr Noel Browne if he would make representations to the British Government to ensure that nuclear weapons were not sited in the six counties.

Lenihan tells him he is not aware of any decision by the British Government to sanction the location of nuclear weapons in NI. He further says that he has seen the press reports and they are “completely without foundation”.

And would any such position be resisted strongly by the Irish Government, Browne asks him. “Oh yes. We have very strong views, naturally”, said Lenihan.

A Dáil debate on 9 November 1983 saw Deputy Pronsias de Rossa raising the issue, asking if cruise missiles would be based, on a permanent or temporary basis, in Northern Ireland.

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The Taoiseach wasn’t there to answer, but de Rossa was told that the Minister for Foreign Affairs had received assurances from the British authorities that there were “no plans for siting Cruise missiles, or any other missiles, in Northern Ireland”.

Nuclear weapons silo?

An article in the Sunday Press, dated three years later, 9 January 1983, said that the then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Peter Barry, said that the government would be raising reports in the Irish Press with the British Government.

A report in the Press, dated on 8 January 1983, said that people in Forkhill, Co Armagh, feared that a silo for nuclear weapons was being built at a local army depot.

The Press was told by a spokesman for the British Ministry of Defence in London that there was no foundation to the fears. He also told them that it would make “little sense” siting them in Northern Ireland, which was “unnecessarily far from Eastern Bloc targets”.

Confidential letter

In a letter marked ‘confidential’, and dated 15 November 1983, Director of Intelligence, Lieutenant Buckley referred to a phone call with P McCabe from the Dept of Foreign Affairs.

It says that the Defence Forces do not have the monitoring or surveillance or any such source to confirm the movement or emplacement of UK/NATO surface ships, submarines, aircraft or nuclear devices or their supporting systems in or around the territory of NI.

He said that there were underground facilities north east of Dungiven which were originally constructed by US forces for the storage of unconventional high explosives, “but were subsequently redesigned and are understood to be suitable for the storage of nuclear weapons if so required”.

National Archives 2014/32/2030

Read: Russia violated arms treaty by testing cruise missile, says US>

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